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On imposter syndrome and the power of being a student

Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

This week, I negotiated two contracts for the kind of projects that put your heart on pause. Of course I panicked. Of course I paced the length of my apartment. Shaking my head. This can’t be real. I don’t deserve this. They’re going to find me out — me and my long con. I sat on signing for two days because self-doubt is that cruel specter that appears when you least want or expect it. It waits for your vulnerability, feeding on it, and throwing a truck-load of salt on an open wound.

We’ve all read about imposter syndrome. Some argue that it doesn’t exist, that we’re right to experience self-doubt because we’re grappling with the reality of our limitations, that there will always exist things we know and don’t know and paralysis comes from confronting that fear.

We’re taught that women experience imposter syndrome more often than men because we’re told, straight out of the womb, all things we are and are not. We’re taught to recede, to stand behind, to support. We watch old shows and movies where women are diminutive and deprecating, where they pander to their beauty or folly. We tell our girls that they’re pretty before we praise their intellect, curiosity or artistic temperament. Even now, even after all this supposed change and time, women are still, in some respects, considered lesser than.

We’re told to ignore all of this if we want to be successful.

I had a significant other who once tried to explain derivatives to me as if I were a small child while I quietly reconciled his financials and made all his numbers foot. I have a journalist friend who studied engineering and she’s routinely talked down to by people who have nowhere near the amount of education and experience she has. In my last job, I spent more time trying to appease and be liked while my male peers’ acerbic and abusive behavior was tolerated and accepted. And I’m not the only one. Women have to balance respectability with likeability on top of all the actual work they have to do.

The things we carry.

I’ve been privileged in the sense that I’ve had a successful two-decade long career and I’ve worked hard for every inch of it. I’ve built companies, brands and mentored hundreds of people. I’ve published two books and a literary magazine to acclaim, and started an impact organization that aided disadvantaged women in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn. And yet, whenever I start something new — an article, a book or a new project — I suffer from crippling, abject terror. Even though I’ve done what I’ve been asked to do hundreds of times, I still wonder: can I do this? Still.

I read somewhere that women won’t apply for a job unless they meet 90% of the criteria while men will apply if they have at least 60% of the required experience. I’ve built my career on overcoming fear and, on paper, I was never qualified for every job for which I’ve applied. I was all about positioning and side hustles. I was hired for a marketing role in book publishing because I had built and marketed a successful literary magazine online. It also didn’t hurt that I was a writer who was a voracious reader. I won a senior role at an agency because of my curious, non-linear CV.

I tell people that I pursue challenge relentlessly even if it terrifies me. What did I know about managing clients after spending over 11 years on the brand side? What did I know about marketing business and diet books when I’d never read or enjoyed either? What did I know about starting an impact organization or a literary magazine? I’d start every venture taking inventory of all the ways in which I wasn’t qualified for the challenge put in front of me. And then I’d talk myself down. You can do this. You have done this. You will do this. Just do the work. Strap in for the wild ride. Then, I’d write down all the things I’d accomplish and if it took playing the Rocky soundtrack while signing contracts, so be it.

The one true thing I know about myself, the one thing in which I have confidence, is my ability to tell stories. Stories always start with a fixation–writers exorcise their obsessions — i.e., what gets them hot. A kind of primal attraction. Then there’s an outline for the three acts or movements, and the realization that although you may have an idea of where the story will go, it never goes where you intend it to go. The mark of a confident writer is the acceptance of the unknown, of all the factors that are beyond your control once you dive in and wade your way through your fixation.

So I like to think of every new opportunity in the same light — I focus on the aspects I do know, the things I can control, and then I play it as it lays. I’ve also come to realize that failure is part of the process. There will be books you will write that will end up in the bin. There are projects you will take on that will be a disaster, and it’s important to separate your self-worth from what you do, because who you are is not what you do.

It took me forever to realize that.

Credit: Gemma Correll

When someone says they’re an expert or a guru, I pause. The words imply there’s nothing left to learn, that one’s role is that of the teacher while I believe that everyone, regardless of age and tenure, is always a student. There’s always more to learn. A yoga teacher told me once that the mark of an advanced practitioner is someone who returns to a basics class to the re-learn the poses as if she’s just experienced them. There’s no ego, no attachment, just humility and curiosity.

I think I’ll always panic right before I start something new, whether it be a new book or a consulting project. However, what comforts me is that this feeling inevitably passes because like writing a book, I break down the story and tackle what I can, day by day. If you only consider the whole, the possibility of you being subsumed by it is greater than you saying, ok, today I will do this one thing.

I break everything down to its component parts, and I’ll tackle each part knowing that I’m moving, albeit at a snail’s pace, toward the whole.

What also gives me comfort is the fact that I go into everything with the perspective of a student. I see my life, my work, as a means of consistently returning to the basics and re-learning what I know and adding new aspects to this knowing. I see it as always taking the role of the open and receptive student instead of a teacher. The student can be both if they’re humble enough, hungry enough, strong enough.

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